John Hicks
Evidence ECD -22224

Notwithstanding published and widely broadcast televised reports, mainstream jazzers weren’t like the Free French in the Second World War and didn’t suddenly appear from hiding when the Young Lions vanquished the fusion and avant-garde usurpers circa 1990.

On the contrary, jazzers of every age group were often suckers for a good melody and straightforward rhythm, and even before that magic date many included so-called standards in their set lists. Shockingly enough for the Marsalis crowd, on their own volition many players enjoyed many forms of music and moved back and forth between them. Thus Joe Henderson recorded with electric instruments and Archie Shepp offered programs of blues and ballads.

St. Louis-born John Hicks was an eclectic like that. Although he was then part of Pharoah Sanders touring band and in the future would play with David Murray — two certified avant gardists — his interests were more traditional as this reissued CD shows. Recorded in 1982, it’s split between solo performances and trio tunes with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and bassist Walter Booker.

Additionally, “After the Morning” is a run through of Hicks’s composition, featuring his wife Olympia on second piano. It has a syncopated feel all right, but seems a little busy and overly stiff. “Beantown Blues”, a previously unreleased bonus track also adds drummer Idris Muhammad to the basic trio.

Not that a drummer is really needed. On his own Hicks, whose experience at that time encompassed work with aggregations led by such individualists as bluesman Little Milton, hard bopper Art Blakey and Swing bandleader Woody Herman, brings all his talents to bear on these tracks.

For instance the standard “That Ole Devil Called Love” is almost freed from its piano bar sentimentality, with solo syncopation hinting at more muscular stride forms without ever losing sight of the melody. “Steadfast” is hard and heavy in the McCoy Tyner-style of modal attack and passing tones, while Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Star-Crossed Lovers” is taken andante, with a measured touch and clear vocings.

Hutcherson, who had avant-garde associations with Shepp and Eric Dolphy earlier on, often makes the trio pieces resemble those of the Modern Jazz Quartet minus a drummer. Allegro, “Gypsy Folk Tale” hints at neither gypsies, nor folk tales, but Hutcherson’s ringing vibe patterns give it some all-American, double time syncopation. Booker holds the beat steady as he often did in Cannonball Adderley’s band, but Hicks, relying on tremolos, appears a bit restrained as if he was playing formal John Lewis to the vibist’s funky Milt Jackson.

Things improve on “For John Chapman”, a straightforward swinger honoring the pianist’s mentor, as well as “Littlest One of All”, a Hutcherson tune, that’s built around double-timing, andante metallic cadenzas from the vibist, some romantic piano fills and the general suggestion of Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Finally “Beantown Blues”, a real finger-snapper, is given extra heft from Muhammad’s funk drumming. Booker may merely be walking, but you can hear every note, while Hutcherson’s echoing vibe tones arch over the other instruments. Speedy, sliding, high dynamic piano chording defines the theme and the tune ends as perfectly as you would expect from a funky blues — with the sizzle of a cymbal, the emphasized pluck of the bass, a vibes vamp and an airy tinkle on the higher keys of the piano.

Mainstream jazz was in good hands back in 1982, without any of the participants pontificating about what they were doing. This CD should appeal to anyone interested in an unpretentious swinging set.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Pas De Trois (Dance For Three) 2. Steadfast 3. For John Chapman 4. Star-Crossed Lovers 5. Littlest One of All 6. After The Morning* 7. That Ole Devil Called Love 8. Gypsy Folk Tales 9. Beantown Blues+

Personnel: Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone); John Hicks (piano); Olympia Hicks (piano)*; Walter Booker (bass); Idris Muhammad (drums)+